For example, an engineer may give a robot a list of goal locations to explore, along with any time constraints, as well as physical directions, such as staying a certain distance above the sea-floor. Using the system devised by the MIT team, the robot can then plan out a mission, choosing which locations to explore, in what order, within a given time-frame.
If an unforeseen event prevents the robot from completing a task, it can choose to drop that task, or reconfigure the hardware to recover from a failure, on the fly.
"These vehicles could plan their own missions, and execute, adapt, and re-plan them alone, without human support," said principal developer Brian Williams.
By giving robots control of higher-level decision-making would free engineers to think about overall strategy. Such a system could also reduce the size of the operational team needed on research cruises, he added. "If you look at the ocean right now, we can use Earth-orbiting satellites, but they don't penetrate much below the surface," Williams said.
"You could send sea vessels which send one autonomous vehicle, but that doesn't show you a lot. This technology can offer a whole new way to observe the ocean, which is exciting," he added in a report appeared in the MIT Technology Review.